Prologue: Opening Day

The home team was set to receive the kickoff of their season opener. The 80,000 football fans packing the stadium were on their feet looking down at the two teams lined up on the verdant green field. It was a mild September Sunday in the Maryland suburbs of the nation's capital, and every seat was taken by loyal maroon and gold wearing fans who were hoping to see their team improve last season's dismal record and make a run for the playoffs. The crowd noise reached a sustained roar as they watched the kicker trot toward the teed-up football, they saw the two teams rush at each other, and they followed the flight of the ball high into the air.

In the midst of this jubilant bedlam, in the center of the western end zone upper deck, a forty year old architect from Annapolis was struck by something on the left temple. He immediately collapsed forward, spurting blood over his friends and several other fans as he fell across the seats below. His shocking injury occurred while the football was still arcing through the air and down the field, so at first the louder screaming of the fans surrounding his crumpled bleeding body went unnoticed by the rest of the crowd around them.

Every two seconds a similar scene was repeated with horrifying variations across the western upper deck stands, as one fan after another was dealt a sudden bloody wound to the face, head, neck, shoulder, arm or chest. A few victims were killed outright, and some were only slightly grazed, but many received searingly painful wounds which caused them to shriek and jerk and fling blood in all directions. Every two seconds another tableau of unexpected violent trauma was created, sending out radiating bands of fear as the shouted word spread from mouth to ear among the trapped thousands: sniper! The waves of horror emanating from each new victim spread and merged and multiplied until the entire western end zone upper deck section became engulfed in seething animal panic.

A minute after the first victim was struck, with the kickoff returned to the twenty yard line and the home team huddled to pick their first play, the continuing frenzied crowd activity in the western upper deck stands was noticed by several cameramen around the stadium. The perplexed stadium video director selected a close up scene of some of the over excited fans and switched that camera onto the stadium's two jumbotron screens. They immediately showed a house-sized image of a woman, her mouth open in an unheard scream, vainly using her hands to try to halt the flow of blood from a man's face.

The rest of the 80,000 fans saw the ghastly open wound and his blood-covered wife on the fifty foot tall video screens, and the panic began to spread from one end of the stadium to the other. Police radios crackled with reports of death and injury, police marksmen dashed out and scanned the stadium's upper tiers and light towers through their binoculars and rifle scopes. The sudden appearance of black-clad police marksmen with their rifles shouldered was noticed by mystified fans throughout the stadium, adding depth to the rippling fear.

Complete panic erupted through the western upper deck as the realization spread like a wind-whipped forest fire that an unseen sniper had them in his deadly crosshair gaze. Six thousand adrenaline glands pumped out their ultimate fight-or-flight hormone. Unthinking mob psychology seized the crowd, and nearly all of the fans who were penned up in the killing zone stampeded down the steps and over the chairs. This fear driven horde charged straight over the smaller and slower fans in their desperation to reach the perceived safety of one of the four exit tunnels.

It had taken well over an hour before the game for six thousand cheerful individuals to fill all of the seats on the steeply sloping upper deck. Many of the fans routinely grew dizzy and flirted dangerously with vertigo while climbing the concrete stairs, which were as high and as steeply pitched as the roof of a cathedral. Now, gripped by primal terror and racing down to the exits, the thousands of fans attempted to do the impossible, they all attempted to escape the unrelenting rain of bullets in less than a single minute.

Police, paramedics, security personnel and the just plain curious were just beginning to rush from the stadium's inside concourse through the tunnels to the stands when they ran headlong into the leading elements of the outpouring human tide. This slowed them enough to precipitate immediate jams at each of the four exits. But the terror of the fleeing mobs in the stands above the exit tunnels did not abate as the bullets continued to fall, and the crush began in earnest.

A hundred tightly pressed bodies, propelled by fear and assisted by gravity, pushed hard against each unlucky person already wedged against the safety railing at the bottom of the upper deck. The rails bent outward as the human avalanche gathered momentum, and then they buckled and victims began to tumble over. The falling victims were still holding tightly onto those above, pulling them over as well, and the solid cascade began. Dozens and then hundreds of linked victims fell past the VIP sky boxes, thudding down onto the fans packed into the lower stands ninety feet below.

He was jolted back from a peaceful place by blows to his head. He heard a gruff voice say "wake up asshole," but when he finally forced his eyelids open there was no one to be seen. He wasn't sure if the kicks and curses had been the bitter end of a dream, a hallucination, or reality. Hairline cracks and spider webs on an unfinished cement ceiling came into focus above him; he could feel that he was lying on a cold rough cement floor. Familiar smells of concrete dust and some kind of smoke filled his nose. He rolled his head to the side and saw that an entire wall was missing, wide open to airy blue nothing only a yard from him. A breeze stirred white papers around the room and out to the sky, one page dipped as it fluttered past his face. He thought for a moment that he saw those crazy Arab worm letters on it, the worm letters he vaguely remembered from his time in the desert.

After years spent in and out of veterans' hospitals and homeless shelters, Jimmy Shifflett was no stranger to waking up in strange places. He had come-to along the sides of highways, half in rivers, once even across the tracks on a railroad bridge. Randomly chosen construction sites and unfinished buildings were familiar surroundings. He raised his right arm to block the sun from his eyes, and saw a desert camouflage sleeve, something he could not remember wearing since his discharge from the Marines over a decade earlier.

The problem was that the damned nurses at the VA hospital put new drugs in your orange juice and never told you what to expect. They fed you new "study" pills by the handful like they were jellybeans. Some made you shake, some made you sweat, some brought nightmares and some brought peace. That's what happened to a sick and broke vet: they used you for a damned guinea pig. Some of the nurses were nice though. Some were real angels come down from heaven. But they made you take the pills anyway.

There was a weight across his chest. His hands fell across something hard and hot, his fingers traced old half-remembered shapes and contours. Even for a hospital dream, this was a real doozy. "Any time now," he thought, "I'm going to wake up in the VA hospital."

In the meantime he used his elbows to push himself up into a sitting position, and looked down upon a strange rifle lying across his lap: black steel and brown wood, with a gray metal tube the size of several beer cans fixed onto the end of the barrel. There was a short black scope attached to a home made mount not straight on top of the rifle, but offset high on the left side. The scope was not only mounted off to the side, but seemed to be pointing downward, totally misaligned. A fat pad or pillow bulged out from the stock where a shooter's face might rest; it was attached with wrappings of gray duct tape. A pair of bipod legs was attached to the barrel just behind the long gray can. A long curved ammunition magazine stuck out of the bottom of the gun.

It was without a doubt the ugliest and weirdest rifle he'd ever seen, as befitted a hospital dream, and after he finished looking at it he tried to set it aside but found it was attached to him by a sling made of green cord caught behind his neck. To get the cord over his head he needed to lift the heavy rifle up off his lap. If he wasn't careful he could fall right out through the missing wall, but in a dream such as this he sometimes could fly. The dreams where he could fly usually started out scary but ended up happy, with him soaring like an angel over soft green meadows. Out the missing wall, past woods and fields and roads, way out in the distance stood some kind of huge multi-colored building. It looked for all the world like the mothership had just landed on earth to take him home. Or maybe they were just going to just do more experiments on him, poking and jabbing and injecting.

Suddenly dropping in front of the missing wall there appeared an insect-like blue and white helicopter, which slowly turned until its side was to him, its rotors invisible and unheard. "It's not right they put the damned drugs in your juice and don't tell you," he thought, still trying to lift the rifle's string over his neck.

"Roger that base, I have the shooter in sight. Confirmed shooter is in sight, he has a rifle, he has a rifle! He's moving, take him out Billy, take him out!"

SWAT sniper Sgt. Bill Paxton found the subject only by his slight movement. The shooter was hard to spot, wearing clothes which matched the bare concrete of the half-finished office building which hid his sniper's lair. A telephone tip from a civilian had alerted the police to the suspected sniper's location, the tip was passed to the Maryland State Police helicopter, and they found him in under a minute after leaving their tight orbit around the stadium.

The sniper had found an A-1 position. Paxton had to give him professional credit; he was hundreds of yards beyond the stadium's outermost security perimeter. No one had ever considered the fans inside the stadium to be in danger from such a distance, well over a thousand yards away. It had always been believed that any rifle shots fired from such a distance would either impact the stadium's outer walls, or sail safely over it. This brainy sniper had somehow figured out a way to precisely drop his shots just over the near side of the stadium, and down into the opposite upper deck. Nobody had ever thought of it before, it was one for the books. This clever sniper had used a rifle for indirect plunging area-fire, almost like a mortar.

So Sgt. Paxton didn't underestimate the shooter's skill, and he quickly settled his scope's mil dot reticle on his head. At 150 yards it wasn't a challenging shot, even restrained by a harness sitting half out of the vibrating helicopter. The pilot held the chopper steady as Paxton squeezed his rifle's trigger and fired a single .308 caliber hollow point, then flicked the bolt and reacquired his sight picture. There was no need for a follow up: the gruesome evidence of his accurately delivered head shot was clearly visible on the walls. The body of the sniper was sprawled flat on his back, and lying perfectly motionless.